“We’re canoers now, Mom.”
That’s what my 4 year old son told me, just a few minutes after we got on a canoe for the very first time. I’d been paddling him around the shore of our lake place in Two Inlets, MN, our golden doodle Tucker lying at my feet, my 7 year old daughter in a blue kayak just a little ways behind us.
I recently had a great conversation with one of my colleagues who has a degree in environmental education. He’d like to see the outdoor education program at our school deepen and expand (as we all would). One of the things he said to me was, “I’d like to see these kids define themselves by what they learn here– I want them to say, ‘I’m a climber,’ or ‘I’m a mountain biker.'”
I have been thinking about what that means. What distinguishes someone who is something from someone who does something? For example– I write blog posts. I am not sure I would call myself a writer. I’m also the Director of a school– I haven’t been responsible for a single classroom for a few years. But if someone asks me what I do, I still say, “I’m a teacher.”
I read a great book about professional learning communities called Professional Capital. In it, the author asserts that until a person has grounded their identity within their membership of their team, the team is not really a team. Here’s a thought exercise: if your organization closed it’s doors tomorrow, would you or your team members say, “I just don’t know who I am anymore,” or, “I just don’t know who I would be without this organization,” than you may be a true team. Conversely, if you have a group of people who would say something like, “Hey, if my school closed it’s doors tomorrow, I could just go start teaching somewhere else,” without an ounce of regret or sadness, than maybe you don’t. The difference is that the team members who feel like their identity is wrapped up in the organization is going to work harder to make sure that it survives.
I remember when I read this, I thought immediately about gangs. In my experience working in inner city and impoverished schools, the kids joining gangs do so because they are looking for acceptance. They want to belong to something. They want to be on a team! I realized that it’s even deeper than this– they are looking for their identity. The want to know who they are– and a gang (or any team!) will tell them: You are what you do, and this is what we do.
This is why kids who are in sports, scouts, piano lessons, etc, are less likely to join a gang or fall in ‘with the wrong crowd’– they already have a place where they belong. Their identity is grounded in their team. They already have something that they can ground themselves in: I am a pianist, and pianists do XYZ, and pianists DON’T do XYZ. I am a football player, and football players do XYZ, and football players DON’T do XYZ. Etc.
It is also why people often credit the military with giving them a home they didn’t know they needed, or why they feel like things just seemed to fall in place once they joined up. Once they understood the rules of the culture they were a part of, and started to emulate that culture in their own lives and choices, they felt like they were a part of something. They became.
Don’t get me wrong– I am not a crazy Jets vs. Sharks lady who feels like the lines between conventions can never be blurred. That’s not at all what I’m suggesting. What I’m saying is that when people feel like they have somewhere they belong, they thrive. When they feel like they are a part of something, and that their membership in that group is crucial to the group itself, their self-worth rises. They become crew, not a passenger.
For many years, Schoolcraft has been asking the question– What makes a Schoolcrafter? How do our kids stand apart? If you put an 8th grade Schoolcraft graduate next to an 8th grader from anywhere else, what’s different about us? Where is our identity? What defines us? If someone asked them, “Who are you?” Would our kids answer, with pride, “I’m a Schoolcrafter”? Would my staff? When my students are absent, do they feel like their crew was missing something vital and important? If not– how can we build those structures so that our kids know that being at school is important, that they are wanted and needed? Because I can tell you: there are plenty of other organizations that make our kids feel this way. Why shouldn’t they feel this way at school?
Ask yourself: What are you? Who are you? What do you do? Where do you belong?
Ask yourself: What is my classroom? What do the kids do? How do they feel– not just comfortable, safe, and welcome– but truly like they are part of the identity of the class? How do you curate experiences to help kids feel like we need their individual input in order for the crew to thrive?